G.I. Joe: Retaliation (United States, 2013)March 27, 2013
I confess a degree of bafflement about why Hollywood apparently considers it necessary to employ the dumbest possible screenplays for movies like this. On one level, the only significant differences between G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Transformers are the big robots and Megan Fox's… assets. Admittedly, one expects a certain amount of stupidity to go along with lots of explosions and special effects. It goes with the territory and, to a degree, is not only acceptable but welcome. After all, one doesn't always want to spend two hours attempting to decode a mystifyingly complex narrative while being bombarded with dizzying visuals. Unfortunately, there's a tipping point and G.I. Joe: Retaliation goes so far beyond it that the idiocy is impossible to set aside. This was written for nine-year olds and it's tough to see how any adult could swallow the storyline. Back in the mid-'70s, I used to play with G.I. Joe "action figures" (the accepted male-oriented term for "dolls") in my backyard. I can say with some degree of confidence that the scenarios I constructed were better thought out than the ones depicted in G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
But there's a lot of action, right? Yes - this is an eye candy special. Jon M. Chu has made a careful study of Michael Bay movies and, as a result, this looks suspiciously like one. One would be foolish to assume the similarities are a coincidence. But there's a problem with action. Unless it involves tension, which often comes from putting well-liked characters in some sort of legitimate danger, it falls flat. Everything in G.I. Joe: Retaliation is perfunctory - technically proficient but soulless. It's not exciting. It's boring. Eye candy is initially sweet but it doesn't take long before the resultant decay sets in. The movie is very violent, but it's of the teen-friendly variety. Violence without blood is like porn without semen. Lacking a "money shot," it's all just a tease. That's the legacy of PG-13.
How does the sequel connect to its predecessor, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra? Not very solidly. Disappointed by the box office performance of the 2009 film, Paramount ordered a near-reboot. Gone are most of the actors/characters from the first film, although the lead, Channing Tatum, made the cut. Enter The Rock and Bruce Willis, go-to action guys. The Rock ends up doing his Rock-y thing, flexing muscles, shooting guns, and thumping bad guys - sort of like Arnold in the '80s. Willis has less screen time than in The Expendables 2, looks bored, and is evidently on hand because he was offered a too-good to refuse salary. Meanwhile, Tatum's sudden, meteoric rise to stardom encouraged last-minute reshoots that pushed back the opening date from June 2012 to March 2013. Tatum's new scenes are evident since they come across as filler unrelated to the main storyline and, despite gaining about ten minutes of additional screen time, his character is not well-treated by G.I. Joe: Retaliation. The sequel is all about burying the past and (almost) pretending like the first one never happened. I wasn't a fan of G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra but it may have been a better movie than this one. At least it was more fun.
The premise for G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a cross between a bad 007 flick and a worse superhero movie. It involves a megalomaniac with world domination aspirations who uses the most convoluted scheme imaginable to achieve his aims. He is Zartan, an underling of Cobra Commander, who was briefly played by Arnold Vosloo in Rise of the Cobra. Here, after using nanotechnology to impersonate the President of the United States, he looks like Jonathan Pryce. Zartan's first goal after taking over the country is to send out a kill team headed by Firefly (Ray Stevenson) to eliminate Duke (Tatum), Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Flint (D.J. Cotrona), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki), and the rest of the Joes. Once that's accomplished, he turns his attention to global disarmament. The surviving Joes return to the United States to seek out the "original Joe," General Joe Colton (Willis) and co-opt his aid. Meanwhile, Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) successfully executes his mission of freeing Cobra Commander from his underground prison.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation illustrates how 3-D can be a bad thing even when its implementation is competent. The 3-D used here is very much of the "in your face" variety. It's frequently splashy and showy and I found it to be distracting. The problem may be that the storyline is so flimsy that I was inordinately focused on the visuals but I occasionally found myself losing track of what was happening because of the 3-D. This 3-D isn't "bad" in the sense that much 3-D is bad - many of the usual problems aren't evident - but it does a disservice to the film as a means of telling a story (although not nearly as great a disservice as the screenplay).
To be fair, G.I. Joe: Retaliation does enough things right to avoid falling into the "unwatchable" category. The action scenes, although lacking in excitement, are cleanly presented. There's a fair amount of cutting but not so much that they become incoherent. The rock climbing ninja fight is inventive and deserves points for ingenuity (if not for an adherence to the laws of physics). The destruction of London, while entirely superfluous, is nicely handled - it's refreshing to see a city other than New York or Washington D.C. being crushed. And there's genuine humor in the "gun browsing" sequence at General Colton's house.
Director Chu comes to this project without a solid action film resume. His previous behind-the-camera efforts include a couple of the Step Up sequels and the Justin Bieber fan-wank. This may in part explain why the action scenes, although effectively choreographed, are lacking when it comes to suspense and tension. The movie as a whole is poorly balanced, with a clunky, uneven beginning (owing in part to the shoehorning in of new Tatum scenes), too much exposition (for a plot that sounds dumber the more it's explained) and too much bland, by-the-book action. There's an audience out there for this kind of thing (potentially a very big one). People seem to like stupid movies, although I'm not sure why. Maybe it makes them feel intellectually superior. I think my 9-year old self would have thoroughly enjoyed G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Need I say more?
G.I. Joe: Retaliation (United States, 2013)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Cinematography: Stephen Windon
Music: Henry Jackman